“Why don’t you just get married and stay barefoot and pregnant?” The question could have come straight from the mouth of Mad Men’s Dick Whitman circa 1967. Instead, it was posed by Dick, my summer intern manager circa 1997. We had just returned from metropolitan Waycross, GA where we had investigated some temperature sensors on one of our locomotives. I was the only intern ever given the chance to travel for business, and I was bursting with excitement. While Dick’s overt sexism was one of several less-than-charming qualities, he had made my summer travel project possible. I was an electrical engineering/computer science double major, and he was one of the few people in my field who made it to my building located on the outskirts of our manufacturing plant. I basically stalked him for additional work, and he always found ways to connect me to electrical engineering assignments.
So when he asked me why I was putting off procreation, I had to tap into my middle-aged-white-man-translator to hear the spirit of what he was saying and resist reacting to what he had actually said. In his eyes, I had chosen a hard life for myself as a woman in technology. He didn’t understand why I would spend my time and energy brainstorming with him on ways to get the hourly workers in the shop to respect me when I could meet much less resistance hitching my wagon to a good husband. He was looking out for me with the only language he knew how.
With the recent ubiquitous media assault surrounding Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, I have found myself reflecting on my professional experiences not just with Dick, but with many others like him. I have rarely had the opportunity—or interest, really-- to parse out the whys behind any discrimination I’ve encountered. I just experienced at an early age that whether it was because I was a woman or because I was black, I was bound to run into prejudice. My response was to acknowledge that it occurred and to just get over it.
It wasn’t that I didn’t see or care about the injustice but I knew fighting the system from the outside wasn’t going to change anything; I had seen that first-hand. My father was a fighter, and I watched him time and again box outside his weight class, not in intellect, but in authority. It was very rare he didn’t experience a TKO, and as I watched him tend to his wounds, I decided that I would find different ways to do battle. While I often felt I had no direct power or influence, what I did have was a determination to do well, despite the barriers and obstacles. I knew that if I could actually find success within the existing system, I could become enough a part of it to create change from within.
Nowhere did I feel my X chromosomes more consistently than in engineering and computer science. I’d answer a question in class and barely get a response from the professor. Moments later, the guy next to me would say the same thing and was lauded with praise. At meetings, it didn’t matter how knowledgeable I was or how assertively I spoke, if I was there with a male colleague, the leader directed all answers to him.
Sheryl Sandberg’s discussion of the Imposter Syndrome is interesting because most women have, at some point, downplayed their accomplishments. I think what makes the concept even more compelling is that it is not just women who feel they might be exposed as a fraud; it occurs with anyone who is considered an “other.” And in fields like technology where you are surrounded by peers who are communicating quite clearly that you don’t belong, no amount of leaning in can change how inadequate you feel.
I suppose that’s why it’s so difficult to get more women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. There’s almost a structural inferiority complex for women that is built into the “brogrammer” culture. While the frat boy, “it’s so cool to smash code” is a recent phenomenon, the “boy’s only” attitudes have existed for years. And given that backdrop, why would anyone choose the additional challenges of being a woman in STEM? It’s extremely telling that while women hold 60% of college degrees, only 27% of all computer science degrees are conferred to them. And yet, I feel that there’s a unique opportunity for women who choose STEM careers, and not just because most of the fastest growing fields in the economy are in technology.
Of course that realization for me is somewhat accidental. When it’s all said and done, I pushed on in many ways because I had become de-sensitized to injustice. I found I was more successful when I understood the context I was in and problem solved how to get where I needed based on that environment.
My early solutions centered on dressing like Pat from Saturday Night Live. I dropped my voice an octave lower and did whatever I could to become androgynous. I tapped into the days I sat with my dad and his friends and cracked jokes that showed I could hang with the guys. I continued my eager stalking of anyone who knew anything I didn’t, and volunteered to help out wherever I could. I continued to get larger and more exciting projects in technology because folks enjoyed my company, trusted me, and knew I was a hard worker. I waged most of my battles socially, and spent less time trying to “out-geek” those around me. And while Sheryl Sandberg highlights the research about success and likability being inversely proportional, I didn’t experience this in technology over time. I carved out a niche for myself with customer-facing roles in tech; the ability to speak both geek and business was a rare combination for my peer group and proved a valuable commodity. None of my tech team envied me spending more time with those “loser users”, and none of the non-techies questioned my abilities- all I had to do was throw out a few technical phrases and their eyes glazed over.
Gratefully there’s a lot more research about the ways women experience gender bias in professional settings, but I was unaware of those tools when I was figuring out my approach. While I can’t argue at all with the fact that in technology roles many of the gender challenges are more in your face, they unfortunately exist everywhere. And yes, it’s true the classes are difficult, which deters both men and women from STEM career pathways. But there’s some weird notion that unless you’re Einstein you should run away from anything technical. I vividly remember wondering whether or not my grades would allow me to even continue in my chosen career path. I often describe my time in engineering as my learning to embrace my mediocrity. A while back I shared that with one of my favorite professors, Dr. Richard Fair, then Editor-in-Chief of IEEE (he was kind of a big deal). He smiled and said, “That’s funny, I always knew you’d have success. You are technically capable, but what’s even more important, you know how to communicate with others. That’s sorely lacking in our industry and makes you stand out even more.”
The spectrum of career paths and opportunities range from giving birth to elegant code to nurturing investments in innovation. And these are not limited to men- there are so many needs in technical fields that women are not only capable of meeting, but also possess inherent strengths that are missing in the industry. It is so important to have more women filling these gaps, and I truly believe there’s a haven for women in technology if they can persist long enough to find it. As it relates to women in STEM, I wish even more of us would Lean In.
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